The Moreton Bay Penal Settlement, which grew to become the city of Brisbane, was originally established in 1824 at Kau-in-Kau-in (also known as Redcliffe). But it had to be relocated the following year because, apparently, it was too easy for convicts to escape. So, the British jailors moved inland where the twisting and turning Maiwar (or Brisbane River) guaranteed a delay for any plucky convict who pinched a boat and fancied a paddle. What I’m saying is: Brisbane was literally devised to be hard to escape from.
I should know. I’ve left Brisbane and come back three times. And on none of those occasions did I have a burning desire to leave – I was quite happy here, always have been. I had to go to, well, work.
That’s the thing about artists/creatives leaving Brisbane. Most of us don’t want to leave, we’re quite happy where we are (or as happy as a creative can be, anyway). But you realise very quickly when you run away to join the circus (i.e. the entertainment industry) that you have to follow the paid work, rather than the paid work following you. This isn’t a new problem – it was faced by any troubadour in the Middle Ages or acrobat in Han dynasty China and so on, all the way up to famous Brisbane exports, like Thea Astley, Savage Garden and Kyle Sandilands.
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Every time I’ve left Brisbane, it’s mostly been because I couldn’t get well-enough-paid work in the arts here. On one hand, I get it – I understand that Sydney and Melbourne are always going to be bigger and they’ve done it longer, blah blah blah. But the frustrating thing was, for a long time, the Brisbane industry was so much smaller/weaker than it should, and could, have been.
I mean, Brisbane’s not a huge city but it’s still pretty big – it’s a state capital, with unis, film schools, queer nightclubs, theatre companies and all that stuff. Yet its potential was unrealised for so long. I mean, when it came to the arts, we routinely had our arses whipped – not just by Sydney and Melbourne, but by Adelaide and Perth and even the Kiwis in Wellington. Sorry to drag cricket into this, but for too many years the arts scene in Brisbane was like Queensland’s Sheffield Shield cricket team – it had the potential to be world-class from the mid-1950s onwards, but it took until 1995 to actually seal the deal and win the title. We did good stuff, sometimes amazing stuff, but we could have (and should have) been so much better than we were.
Everyone’s got a theory as to why – too much sun/God/Joh [Bjelke-Petersen]/cultural cringe/floods/art that didn’t touch its audience/bogans/emigration/proximity to Sydney. My theory is this: too many Brisbane artists simply didn’t get the chance to practice their craft on a professional level as often as they should – as a result, what industry there was became unhealthily dominated by amateurs and bureaucrats. Being an arts bureaucrat is a thankless job, but they are vital to the industry’s existence. And, on their end, it makes a hell of a difference to deal with professionals, as opposed to part-timers.
That’s the biggest change I’ve noticed since coming back, aside from property prices: the city now has a genuine, ever-growing core of professionals working in the creative sphere. I’m not bagging the pioneers – God bless all of you, especially the Arts Theatre, ABC Toowong, Wombat and George Landen Dann, and nothing had more cultural impact on me than 4ZZZ, Agro, Milton-era La Boite and the work of John Birmingham – but it feels like there’s a real industry now, a diversified collection of professionals contributing to their super by doing this, not people making pots of jam in their kitchen between regular gigs. And this has raised standards across the board, whether it’s product quality, skills, bureaucrats, marketing, whatever.
Yes, there should be more money and what money there is should be spent better and we absolutely need more quotas to protect local artists. But we’ve really got something going here and it’s working – and (fingers crossed) it’ll continue working. We’ve got companies like Hoodlum, Ludo, Jaggi Entertainment, Shake & Stir, Wildbear, Anywhere Festivals and [insert the name of any company belonging to someone reading this who gets upset that I overlooked them]. My point is: there are a lot of us now, certainly a lot more than 10 or 20 years ago.
And these companies didn’t have to leave Brisbane to do it. Brisbane artists will still have to travel – all artists will always have to travel – but I think we get it now, finally, that the Southerners aren’t better than us, and if we can dominate the Sheffield Shield, then we should be able to conquer the arts, too.
Stephen Vagg’s writing credits include Home and Away, Neighbours and the feature films All My Friends Are Leaving Brisbane and Jucy.
All My Friends Are Returning to Brisbane premieres at the Fringe Brisbane Hub on November 30. The play will run until December 2. Head here for tickets and more information.